Sunday, March 20, 2016

Teaching for Proficiency...a Career Long Journey

Proficiency refers to the ability to do, to function. Language proficiency refers to one’s ability to use language for real world purposes to accomplish real world linguistic tasks, across a wide range of topics and settings.    
-Language Testing International

A few years ago when the idea of teaching for language proficiency came into my world, I felt energized and on-fire--it put words to what I felt  deep down about being a language teacher.  Language for real life use--of course!  Why hadn't it occurred to me before? When I thought about how that would play out in my classes, I felt overwhelmed, anxious and guilty. All of these feelings came up during the few hours I sat in that one proficiency focused workshop!
At that point I had already been teaching Spanish for about 10 years.  I doubted my previous decisions, and I was racked with guilt about failing my students all those previous years.  With little planning time I had no idea how I was going to shift my focus to proficiency in my classes for 1st-8th graders.  Feeding my anxiety was working as the only WL teacher in a small private school with few proficiency focused materials available or colleagues with which to collaborate.

Why hadn't it occurred to me before?! I wish someone would have told me then, "Give yourself a break! Be gentle with yourself. You don't have to know it all."  I grew up in language programs that were based on grammar driven textbooks--from middle school through university.  The modeling I received didn't focus on proficiency.  Nor did many teachers I met along the way. 

It has taken several years, working step by step, to build a program (and mindset) that focuses on developing proficiency, and it's still a work in progress(and always will be!).  Along the way, I've plugged into meaningful PD,  and forged relationships with colleagues outside of my school community, who support this way of working. 

 Here's what I wished I had known when I embarked on the proficiency journey:
  • You're not alone.  
    • There are lots of teachers who are working on this and want to collaborate, share and support you as they grow themselves.  These teachers are blogging, tweeting, and presenting at conferences. Find your people. #langchat is a great place to start, as is your state language teacher organization.  This post from Amy Lenord is a rich resource for teacher-bloggers.
  • Be generous and forgiving with yourself and others.
    • You're doing your best. You love your students, care for them and want the best for them.  We all want the best for our students and are learning along the way.  Reserve the harsh judgment-of others and yourself.
  • You're never done.
    • There is no proficiency finish line.  We're all continuing to learn and innovate. And we'll likely never be done.  
For my colleagues who might be a little further along the proficiency journey, what would have helped you at the beginning?


  1. Dear Valerie, I love so much your place. Yes, it's possible to build an airplane while in flight. We did it when we learn to speak ouu mother tongue language. But, unfortunately most of the Foreign Language systems try to learn swimming in a bath...

    Kind regards.


  2. Thanks, José! Here's to building an airplane in flight!